Considering the fact that its subject matter is new and hip, Beat Street is a surprisingly traditional film. It reworks the tried-and-true formula of poor street kids who dream of using their artistic talent as a means of breaking out of the urban inferno.
In this instance, the ghetto is in New York, and the ticket to freedom is no longer the ability to play the violin or sing like a bird. These kids are break dancers, graffiti artists, and rappers (rapping, defined by the handy press kit glossary, is “talking rhythmically with and over the instrumental breaks in records”).
These methods of expression may be new and unusual, but the basic story is the same. The kids have dreams and hopes, which are fulfilled and squashed in various ways during the story. Some of the kids want to dance; one is a budding rapper; and another expresses himself by spray-painting subway trains.
Director Stan Lathan never quite licks the problems of an overly formulaic scenario, but I did like his refusal to prettify the setting and characters. None of the actors (except Rae Dawn Chong) has much screen presence, which works two ways: It contributes to the sense of reality that the filmmakers are clearly shooting for, but it also makes the story rather less compelling than it ought to be.
The real interest in Beat Street lies in the break dancing, which involves human beings whirling and spinning around on the ground in positions and at speeds that confound anatomical reality. The best scene in the movie occurs at a big dance, when the plot just shuts down for about 10 minutes and the camera watches some of these amazing performers do their thing It’s exhilarating, and nothing else in the movie can match it for excitement.
Beat Street was co-produced by Harry Belafonte, who developed the project from its inception. Apparently Belafonte insisted on being true to the subject, and not glitzing up the soundtrack with easily accessible pop tunes (in the movie business these days, a pre-digested, commercial soundtrack album sometimes comes before the movie—as though the film itself were an afterthought).
Belafonte is to be commended for the honorable intentions behind Beat Street. It’s a shame the screenplay hews so close to cliché.
First published in the Herald, June 1984
Gotta love that rap definition. And hey, I may not have loved Stan Lathan’s work here, but the man is due some career recognition; not only has he directed everything from “Sanford and Son” to “Hill Street Blues” to “Def Comedy Jam,” he’s also the father of Sanaa Lathan.